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One Year in: Officials reflect on lessons learned from current and past pandemics
During the COVID pandemic of the past year, people in general have learned how to protect themselves against respiratory diseases.
To Thomas Russo, that’s one of the benefits we’ve seen from this experience.
“It would not surprise me, when influenza season rolls around, that even with COVID under control and hopefully not being a concern ... People now know about masks and have masks and know that they protect against respiratory illnesses,” said Russo, professor and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University at Buffalo.
One thing we learned, Russo said, is that public health infrastructure had been chiseled away and really was not optimally positioned to deal with the pandemic.
“We’re starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel. At some point there’s going to be another pandemic. I‘m hoping now that we’ve learned our lesson from this one,” he said. “Countries that have very rigorous health structures in place, such as South Korea, fared better than us. We can’t forget about keeping that public structure in place for when the next pandemic occurs, hopefully not in my lifetime, but we’ll see.”
The UB Division of Infectious Diseases chief said anti-vaccination supporters, also known as anti-vaxxers, have spread misinformation that vaccines are terrible.
“The medical invention that has saved the most lives, increased the number of years that people live, are vaccines,” he said. “I’m hoping that we could put this anti-vaxxer movement behind us and that people while embrace vaccines,” he said. “There’s still work to be done. We still have the majority of this country to get vaccinated. I hope people will embrace the concept that vaccines are good. Adults should get vaccinated when it is recommended.”
Some adults are distrustful, but it’s hard to say how many, Russo said.
“However, since vaccines are not mandatory for most adults, in contrast to children that require certain vaccines to attend school, they just take a pass. For example, our influenza vaccination rate for adults is generally around 40 percent,” he said. “My hope is that children, adults and everyone alike realizes that vaccines are a good thing. We need to put these negative thoughts about vaccines behind us and realize that they’re one of the best tools we have.”
For the business world, Russo says, Zoom video conferencing will continue.
“All of us live in the age of Zoom and people have learned, and businesses have learned that,” he said. “It saves travel time, you can downsize office spaces and things like that. Of course, it depends on your job. It’s a whole new way of having conferences and working with people ... there’s no question that that’s here to stay as well.
“It’s going to change a little bit in terms of how we go about work-related activities,” Russo said of the work day. “Even if they go into work, that first meeting of the day may be from home.”
Hopefully, people will also learn that not all information sources should be considered equal and trustworthy, Russo said.
“Social media is rampant with incorrect news ... People heavily, in terms of the lay public, get lots of their information from social media,” he said.
Russo gave the example that a study might come out that comes to one conclusion, but that messages on social media will flip that result and claim the opposite, and that people’s biases may enter into it.
“I think we need to learn that when it comes to things that are critically important ... that we use trusted and reliable sources. Certainly, there are a number of sites that are reliable and a number of sites that are unreliable,” he said.
Politically motivated decisions have been an issue during the pandemic, Russo noted, though he said he’s not trying to look back and point fingers.
“It’s been difficult and we’ve learned a lot on the fly,” he said. “Public health decisions should be made by public health officials, who then advise government officials, who then come out with regulations. Most of our regulations have been driven science and the facts, but not uniformly.”
In looking back at a pandemic that hit the GLOW region and beyond over 100 years ago, the 1918 flu pandemic, Batavia City Historian Larry Barnes said there were some changes similar to what happened in the past year. Over a century ago, in response to the flu pandemic, local leaders closed the schools. They also shut down entertainment venues, such as theaters and bowling alleys. People in the medical profession quarantined some residents at home, he said. People wore masks in public.
“The churches stopped having in-person services for awhile,” he said. “Those were all local decisions. They were not made by the state. They were not made by the federal government. That’s a difference (between 1918 and today).”
The historian said he didn’t come across any stories, from that time, of protests against wearing masks and other safeguards, as have happened this past year under COVID.
He did find one interesting story from the fall of 1918 in Batavia, though.
“I came across a weird thing. It’s amazing,” he said with a laugh. “They didn’t know what, exactly, was causing the flu and they didn’t know how to treat it. Somebody got the idea in city leadership that burning leaves in the fall, the smoke might kill the germs. That’s what they said.
“So, they set aside one particular day and encouraged everybody to rake their lawns and put a pile of leaves in front of their house. Then, on a particular day that was designated, all these leaf piles were set on fire,” Barnes said. “The city was filled with smoke from burning leaves, which, of course, did no good. In fact, it caused some harm because of the negative effect on the air quality. There was a newspaper report. They claimed in the report the following day that the smoke surely killed large numbers of the flu germ. They don’t know what they were talking about. I hadn’t heard of anybody trying that before.”
As for the future, post-COVID, Barnes said one thing that might happen, though it may not be long-lasting, is that people may take more care in terms of washing their hands and avoid “risky” behavior in general.
“I know it appears that the flu has not been as common this year as usual. My guess is the kinds of things people have done to try to avoid COVID-19 have helped cut down on the incidence of flu infections as well,” he said. “People may, at least temporarily, say ‘Hey, this turns out that would be a good thing in terms of health issues in general. There may be some changes that are lasting. Sometimes, we forget about it in 20 years.”
Barnes, like Russo, felt that working from home and Zoom meetings will continue.
“I’ve talked to people who say, ‘You know, I really like that (virtual meetings). Having to go somewhere, sit down with a bunch of other people and conduct a meeting is not nearly as efficient timewise as it is just to get together (for a) Zoom meeting and then move on,” he said.
“Some people I talked to really liked being able to do shopping online. Shopping online increased dramatically during this pandemic,” he said. “People turned to ordering their groceries online and having someone else do the shopping, bring them out and put the groceries in the vehicle for the customer or deliver them for the customer became more popular. There may be some changes in the way businesses are conducted where there will be more online shopping, services offered where people don’t have to go to the store themselves.” Courtesy of the Batavia Daily News